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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 64

Kalevala, always existed separately, never as one complete epos, though always bearing a certain relation to each other. Lonnrot, in Finland, was able, by adding a few connecting links of his own, to give unity to the Kalevala, and had MacPherson been content to do this for the Fionn saga, instead of inventing, transforming, and serving up the whole in the manner of the sentimental eighteenth century, what a boon would he have conferred on Celtic literature. The various parts of the saga belong to {143} different centuries and come from different authors, all, however, imbued with the spirit of the Fionn tradition.

A date cannot be given to the beginnings of the saga, and additions have been made to it even down to the eighteenth century, Michael Comyn's poem of Oisin in Tir na n-Og being as genuine a part of it as any of the earlier pieces. Its contents are in part written, but much more oral. Much of it is in prose, and there is a large poetic literature of the ballad kind, as well as Märchen of the universal stock made purely Celtic, with Fionn and the rest of the heroic band as protagonists. The saga embodies Celtic ideals and hopes; it was the literature of the Celtic folk on which was spent all the riches of the Celtic imagination; a world of dream and fancy into which they could enter at all times and disport themselves. Yet, in spite of its immense variety, the saga preserves a certain unity, and it is provided with a definite framework, recounting the origin of the heroes, the great events in which they were concerned, their deaths or final appearances, and the breaking up of the Fionn band.

The historic view of the Fians is taken by the annalists, by Keating, O'Curry, Dr. Joyce, and Dr. Douglas Hyde.506 According to this view, they were a species of militia maintained by the Irish kings for the support of the throne and the defence of the country. From Samhain to Beltane they were quartered on the people, and from Beltane to Samhain they lived by hunting. How far the people welcomed this billeting, we are not told. Their method of cooking the game which they hunted was one well known to all primitive peoples. Holes were dug in the ground; in them red-hot stones were placed, and on the stones was laid venison wrapped in sedge. All was then covered over, and in due time the meat was done to a turn. Meanwhile the heroes engaged in an elaborate {144} toilette before sitting down to eat. Their beds were composed of alternate layers of brushwood, moss, and rushes. The Fians were divided into Catha of three thousand men, each with its commander, and officers to each hundred, each fifty, and each nine, a system not unlike that of the ancient Peruvians. Each candidate for admission to the band had to undergo the most trying ordeals, rivalling in severity those of the American Indians, and not improbably genuine though exaggerated reminiscences of actual tests of endurance and agility. Once admitted he had to observe certain geasa or "tabus," e.g. not to choose his wife for her dowry like other Celts, but solely for her good manners, not to offer violence to a woman, not to flee when attacked before less than nine warriors, and the like.

All this may represent some genuine tradition with respect to a warrior band, with many exaggerations in details and numbers. Some of its outstanding heroes may have had names derived from or corresponding to those of the heroes of an existing saga. But as time went on they became as unhistorical as their ideal prototypes; round their names crystallised floating myths and tales; things which had been told of the saga heroes were told of them; their names were given to the personages of existing folk-tales. This might explain the great divergence between the "historical" and the romantic aspects of the saga as it now exists. Yet we cannot fail to see that what is claimed as historical is full of exaggeration, and, in spite of the pleading of Dr. Hyde and other patriots, little historic fact can be found in it. Even if this exists, it is the least important part of the saga. What is important is that part—nine-tenths of the whole—which "is not true because it cannot be true." It belongs to the region of the supernatural and the unreal. But personages, nine-tenths of whose actions belong to this region, must bear the same character themselves, and for that reason are all the {145} more interesting, especially when we remember that the Celts firmly believed in them and in their exploits. A Fionn myth arose as all myths do, increasing as time went on, and the historical nucleus, if it ever existed, was swamped and lost. Throughout the saga the Fians are more than mere mortals, even in those very parts which are claimed as historical. They are giants; their story "bristles with the supernatural"; they are the ideal figures of Celtic legend throwing their gigantic shadows upon the dim and misty background of the past. We must therefore be content to assume that whether personages called Fionn, Oisin, Diarmaid, or Conan, ever existed, what we know of them now is purely mythical.


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